Performance fibres made of spider silk: Thomas Scheibel named European Inventor Award 2018 finalist
- German biochemist nominated for European Patent Office (EPO) prize for developing the world's first bioengineered spider silk
- Scheibel's artificial spider silk has a wide diversity of applications in textiles, medicine and cosmetics
- Animal-free production creates material 15% lighter than conventional synthetic fibres
- EPO President Battistelli: "Thomas Scheibel's invention makes one of the strongest materials found in nature available in a market-ready product on an industrial scale."
Munich, 24 April 2018 - Spider webs are among nature's strongest structures with their phenomenal ability to carry weight, withstand impact, and stretch up to 140 percent in length without breaking. The secret lies in spider silk, which is 30 times stronger than steel and at least three times tougher than Kevlar®, the synthetic material used in bullet-proof vests. Scientists have tried - and failed - for decades to mass-produce spider silk as an ultra-strong material. The first commercial products finally came to market in 2014, thanks to pioneering inventions by German biochemist Thomas Scheibel. Using "biomimicry" to imitate a spider's own silk-making technique in laboratory, he perfected a process to produce bioengineered spider silk proteins and spin them into a fibre.
For this achievement, Thomas Scheibel has been nominated as a finalist for the European Inventor Award 2018 in the category "Small and medium-sized enterprises". The winners of the European Patent Office (EPO)'s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on 7 June 2018.
"Thomas Scheibel's artificial spider silk process uses advanced bioengineering methods to bring one of the most resilient materials found in nature into industrial-scale production," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli announcing the European Inventor Award 2018 finalists. "Years of rigorous problem-solving on a biochemical as well as a mechanical level have advanced the patented invention into a market-ready product."
Tricking nature into helping science
Spider silk is incredibly lightweight: a strand long enough to wrap around the Earth would weigh less than a bar of soap. It is also strong and versatile. "Currently we know of 45 000 different spiders on Earth. They all produce their individual silk with unique properties: some are like glue, some are strong, others elastic," says Thomas Scheibel. However versatile the material might be, mass production of the fibre with its almost unbelievable qualities had long produced only discouraging results. Scientists and chemical corporations had tried unsuccessfully to artificially mass-produce spider silk for decades. Commercial farming proved to be a daunting task because unlike silkworm larvae, which have been "harvested" for centuries to make conventional silk, spiders are both territorial and cannibalistic. They will either eat each other or scurry away to safety when kept in confined spaces.
As an alternative approach, Scheibel drew on his background in biochemistry to imitate the way in which spiders produce silk in their glands. He developed a two-step process: First, he genetically modified E.coli bacteria with "translocated" genes from the European garden cross spider and reprogrammed the bacteria to produce spider silk proteins. As a result, the genetically engineered E.coli deliver spider silk proteins in the laboratory from raw materials such as beets and sugar cane.
Yet even this breakthrough turned out to be only half the battle. What Scheibel needed was the crucial second step: to mimic the complex mechanism by which spiders "pull and spin" strands of silk as fibres for making their webs. The fine protein fibre spun by spiders, also called gossamer, contains up to 1 500 strands of spider silk per thread and is processed in so-called spinneret glands. And contrary to popular belief, the thread is not shot into the air, but pulled from spinnerets slowly. Mimicking this process in the laboratory turned into the ultimate elusive prize in manufacturing artificial spider silk. Here too, many global chemical conglomerates had tried and given up over the years. Yet Scheibel remained undeterred: "Our motto was: 'Nothing's impossible!' We were totally convinced that, somehow, it could be done." It took about a decade to perfect. But ultimately, Scheibel and his team successfully devised a complex mechanical process to "spin" the raw silk proteins into silk fibres for use in all kinds of products.
Mass production for artificial spider silk
To advance his patented invention into industrial-scale production, Scheibel co-founded Technical University of Munich (TUM) spin-off company AMSilk in 2008. With the inventor on the advisory board since 2011, it has so far mobilised a double-digit million-euro sum in venture capital and employs 30 people. In 2014, the company made headlines as the first industrial supplier of synthetic silk biopolymers. The privately held company does not disclose revenues publicly, but AMSilk fully operates commercialisation of its spider silk-based materials. The intellectual property behind their artificial spider silk, including a key patent on Scheibel's important "seamless cloning" method to replicate spider DNA within bacteria, has been transferred to AMSilk. In August 2017, Technology Review magazine listed AMSilk among the Top-50 most innovative firms worldwide.
Scheibel's spider silk (including AMSilk's headline product Biosteel® which is 15% lighter than conventional synthetic fibres) is now applied in a vast number of products ranging from cosmetics, medical applications in surgery and drug coatings to bullet proof vests and even computer electronics, to name only a few. Fully biodegradable and biocompatible, with a low risk of rejection, the new silk is well-suited for implants and other medical uses. Its properties make it ideal for medical textiles and surgical tools, such as meshes, support bandages or wound coverings.
"With spider silk proteins you can pretty much do the same things you can do with plastics. And for that we need only water, room temperature and self-assembly. Biosteel is a 100% green product. It is plastic-free, animal-free and biodegradable," says the inventor.
Spinning a global net
The global market for bioplastics is currently estimated at over EUR 5.6 billion and expected to grow at 18.6% per year driven by next-generation materials such as spider silk. The global market for synthetic fibres, which includes products from clothing to toys to home textiles, is some EUR 38.2 billion. Scheibel's invention also holds the potential to make inroads into the traditional silks market projected to reach EUR 13.8 billion by 2021. AMSilk shares the emerging spider silk market with at least eight rivals, with competitors pursuing different approaches to offer spider silk at scale.
Inspired by nature
After earning his PhD in Biochemistry from the
University of Regensburg in 1998, Thomas Scheibel spent three years as a
postdoc at the University of Chicago. In the lab of the late Susan Lindquist, a
pioneer in the biochemical role of proteins, he explored state-of-the-art
techniques in molecular genetics and cell biology. Back in Germany, he joined
the Technical University of Munich in 2001 as assistant professor to
pursue technical applications of protein-based materials occurring in nature -
including spider silk. Since 2007, he has served as Chair of Biomaterials at
the University of Bayreuth, Germany.
A prolific author of seven granted European patents, 122 peer-reviewed articles, and 18 book chapters, Thomas Scheibel also finds the time to serve as a board member of scientific magazines BioNanoScience (Springer Verlag) and Scientific Reports (Nature Verlag). Throughout a career in biochemistry spanning over 25 years, his research and product development efforts have earned him numerous awards, including the Innovation Award from the Bavarian Prime Minister (2006), Heinz-Maier-Leibnitz Medal (2007) and the Max-Buchner Research Foundation's Dechema Award (2013). In 2014, Thomas Scheibel became a member of the German Academy of Science and Engineering and frequently co-organises biochemistry conventions such as the German Materials Society Bio-inspired Materials Conference while advancing his spider silk applications.
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View the patents: EP202136, EP2013290, EP1948684
Building blocks of the future:
Thomas Scheibel's ultra-tough fibres are not the first futuristic materials featured at the European Inventor Award. In 2010, German researchers Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology were winners in the "Small and medium-sized enterprises" category for their bio-plastic material Arboform made of "liquid wood". Other next-generation materials include steel-wire infused concrete by Dutch inventor Ann Lambrechts (2011; Industry - winner) and the self-cleaning cement developed by Luigi Cassar, Gian Luca Guerrini and team (2014; Industry - finalists).
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